Mary and the Witch’s Flower (2018): A New Studio’s Decent Introduction to the Studio Stage

With Hayao Miyazaki retiring soon and with it…I doubt his studio will ever be as strong. Hell, his son’s film “From Up on Poppy Hill” nearly put me to sleep and I’m afraid to see “Tales of Earthsea” given how much I love that series and the bad things I’ve heard about it. So lets put Ghibli’s future on hold. Who will take up the banner? Well Studio Ponoc throws their hat in the ring with this film as it captures many similar themes, from coming of age, nature v. science and other Miyazaki-esque themes. How did it do? If you like anime films I’d recommend it. It isn’t great but it is a solidly enjoyable outing. The film was released in 2017 in Japan but 2018 in the States so I’m counting it as my first 2018 film review.

The film was directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi who also co-wrote the film with Riko Sakaguchi and produced by Yoshiaki Nishimura.

The story involves Mary, a young girl in England about to start school who stumbles upon a Witch’s Flower which transports her to a magical school where she soon finds herself in over her head as Witch Madame Mumblechook and Doctor Dee seek the flower to their own ends.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros: The World – The world is really neat. I like that the Magic School / World lives above ours so it is hard to access, and the fact that it seem to imply anyone can access it and be changed by it. This also leads to a con though, the logic of this world is never answered…which I’ll bring up later.

The Animation – The animation is beautiful and very Ghibli-esque. It is open and gives characters a range of expression while also being fluid and full of compelling color, while remaining bright like a fairy tale. If they make more films with this aesthetic I may check out what they simply to see the animation and if they can take what great thing they have and make it better.

The Flashback – A mysterious witch is running away with the flower while being attacked by summoned water dolphin beings. The threat is high the entire time and we see her fall and her broom and the flowers become overgrown by the world below. This is an amazing setup and I wanted to know what happened.

Doctor Dee –  I saw the English dub because that was what released in theatres and Jim Broadbent is the one who voiced this mad scientist. He is really interesting as he sees unethical experiments as for the greater good and is seeking immortality. He also used to be tall but has now become short and uses machines to walk. His obsession has completely transforms him, but that didn’t change his love for Madame Mumblechook, the Headmistress of the school.

Great Aunt Charlotte – This is the character the movie should have been about. She is the witch at the beginning and we see that she’s settled down but still held onto a single flower. How did her life change after her escape? So much time has passed…but she was a witch so does her magic leave after she leaves the school? None of these questions are really answered. I wanted her story. She is way more compelling than our protagonists.

Okay: Mary and Peter – Mary and Peter are okay. Mary is clumsy and wants to help and doesn’t thing she is good at anything and Peter is a bully who ends up becoming more when he finds that Mary is friends with his cats. Mary saves Peter after becoming a witch and must stop Mumblechook and Dee…okay. This is all fine but none of them are all that complicated and I was far more invested in the side characters than our leads.

Madame Mumblechook – Madame Mumblechook is also okay, we don’t really see why the Witch’s Flower corrupted her motivation as Doctor Dee is the one doing mad scientist experiments and she is in charge of the school. We don’t really get her change beyond possibly her love for Dee? Which is a shame as Dee was driven by mad science, so he had more going on.

The Cons: World Development – Do Witch’s only get magic from the flower? Do you keep your magic if you stay at the school? How does the Witch World interact with ours? What is the difference between magic and science in this universe? This was a world of potential but it failed to fully explore the fascinating premise it started with.

I wish Studio Ponoc success, and given this is their first film they’ve released I hope they can continue releasing films of at least this quality and better. For any fans of the themes in Miyazaki and Ghibli films, check this one out. It has a lot of untapped potential but what they do explore is a lot of fun and the animation is simply beautiful. Here is to the future and hoping that Studio Ponoc will only grow from here.

Final Score: 7.8 / 10

 

Hot Fuzz (2007): A Brilliant Satire of Cop Films with a Compelling Story

Hot Fuzz

      “Hot Fuzz” is amazing, though it is in steep competition to be the best film in Pegg’s and Wright’s Cornetto Trilogy. This is a film that captures the absurdity of both television and film cop dramas, while also shining a light and critiquing small town and city culture at the same time…while giving our stars character arcs! There is a lot that is needed for a comedy to work, and this film manages to achieve that.

     The film was directed by Edgar Wright who also wrote it with Simon Pegg while being produced by Nira Park, Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner.

SPOILERS ahead

      The story involves Sgt, Nick Angel (Simon Pegg) the best cop in London being sent to the village of Sandford since his stats are making his fellow cops look bad on the force. In Sandford he soon learns all is not as it appears to be as mysterious deaths continue to pop around town accompanied by hooded figures running from the scenes of the crimes. He must work with the Police Chief in Sandford’s son PC Danny Butterman (Nick Frost) in order to solve the case and the dark side of the village.

The Pros: The London Police Authorities – Martin Freeman appears as Nick Angel’s higher up as do two other actors but Freeman was the most memorable as the one trying to make the demotion look like a promotion. By the time the highest one is reached he tells Angel that he being sent away because he is too good and makes them all look bad. It’s a really hilarious joke and critique of the City.

The Cinematography – Jess Hall did a fantastic job on the cinematography. The film is polished and looks like a modern day cop drama as it emphasizes eyes, guns and loss whenever someone gets shot. It’s really good work and we see the use of darkness used to build tension.

The Writing – The writing is hilarious. Wright and Pegg are a great pair and know their comedy well, and not just comedy…they give their characters arc. Nick Angel and Danny Butterman are not static characters, events and circumstances change them and help them to grow into better people than they were before.

Callback Jokes – The callback jokes are wonderful! At one point they run into an old man named Webler (played by David Bradley) who has a whole bunch of guns and a water mine which doesn’t work…Nick and Danny later use the guns to attack the NWA and the mine is used to kill the last one who tries to kill Nick at the end before the mine destroys the Station.

The Satire – The Satire is brilliant! From the NWA being so concerned with appearances that they murder for it, Danny being obsessed with cop films and doing events from said films (“Point Break” and “Bad Boys” as an example) and Angel rejecting it not realizing he is the trope before he finally embraces at the end, and with it all the paperwork.

Sandford – Sandford is an idyllic small town, it is mostly farms with a few stores and we see that everyone knows everyone. All the small town tropes exist here, from the village gossip, the crappy journalist and the overbearing Police Chief in a town obsessed with conformity.

Simon Skinner – Timothy Dalton does a good job as the CEO of the convenience store who is set up to be the big bad but is only one of the many members of the NWA responsible for the murders. He is good at being creepy and overbearing to everyone around him as he only speaks in threats.

The Sandford Police Force – The Sandford Police Force is wonderful, Olivia Colman plays the only woman on the police force and there are two mustached guys and one nervous guy who does whatever Nick says but is also a good strategist…they all break and embrace the tropes they were written into leading to a great faceoff in Skinner’s store at the end.

Frank Butterman – Jim Broadbent is wonderful as the likable but for appearance of useless Police Commissioner who is all about village appearances. He is a good antagonist as we see he is the way he is after his wife killed herself since she was so obsessed with winning the competition. He is good at leading Nick Angel on false leads and he is the unspoken leader of the NWA.

PC Danny Butterman – Danny’s arc is realizing how serious it is to be a cop and dealing with the truth of his father…after he does he is able to turn the police force against his dad and help take out the NWA with Nick as we see that they now compliment each other as Danny’s socialness is what helps Nick Angel get outside of his obsession with the job as Nick’s obsession rubs off on Danny and helps Danny to become a hero and good cop.

Sgt. Nick Angel – Nick is man obsessed with being the best cop to the point that he lost his relationship and is alone with his plant. It takes Danny (who he arrests when he first arrives in Sandford) slowly getting him out of his shell and helping him open up that we see him mellow out and become not just a good cop in doing the right things to catch the bad guys, but also in how he treats others…this arc is completed in him choosing to stay in Sandford at the end, rather than returning to London when Freeman’s character offers him the chance (since things have gotten so bad after him leaving). Simon Pegg is brilliant and the best part of the film.

Okay/Cons – Pacing – There are a few moments where the film drags, this is partially due to the film being very quick in it’s action. This is the only real con outside of a plot hole I’ll list in the next one.

The Cons: Where are the Families of the Missing People – The Neighborhood Watch Alliance and Associates (NWA) kills anyone who makes the town look bad (the hoodies, the kids who were drinking in the pub) so that they continue to win town of the year…where were the families of the people killed? My theory was that they were living in fear of the NWA but we never have conformation of this, so that was a small thing that bothered me in the film.

   This might be my film in the Cornetto Trilogy, though “Shaun of the Dead” is hard to beat and may still be better. Regardless, this is a film I’d highly recommend. If you like a great satire, comedy and film that celebrates Cop Dramas while at the same time celebrating aspects of them and the tropes they invented, you will like this film. It’s one of my favorites and one I will no doubt watch again in the future.

Final Score: 9.6 / 10

Life is Sweet (1990): The Reasons to Live and to Dream

Life is Sweet

       “Life is Sweet” is a fascinating drama and exploration of a poor family in Northern London. It gives us great character dynamics, comments on social issues in a subtle way and shows that the members of a family aren’t one dimensional. It’s a powerful movie and definitely a favorite. I’ll get more into the details in the assessment.

    “Life is Sweet” was directed by Mike Leigh, who also wrote the screenplay and produced by Simon Channing Williams.

      The story takes place over summer as situations arise and change for the characters. From Andy the husband (Jim Broadbent) buying a beat down trailer to sell food from on weekends, to the wife Wendy (Alison Steadman) helping her creepy friend Aubrey (Timothy Spall) who is opening up a bad French restaurant. Around this time their daughter Nicola (Jane Horrocks) is a shut in while her other daughter Natalie (Claire Skinner) is a plumber and is the only one of them happy. From here the story unfolds.

Here is the assessment of the film:

The Pros: The World – The lives of the characters feel lived in and real. From Andy going to work at the large restaurant where he’s the head chef, to Aubrey’s house and restaurant and right outside the home of the family. It doesn’t feel artificial or fake in any way which lends power to the situations.

Andy – Jim Broadbent is a great actor and this may be the best role I’ve seen him in so far. He was the Psychiatrist in “Filth” and Professor Slughorn in “Harry Potter,” but in this he is a completely likable character. He’s an idealist who is easily used by a “friend” who continues to sell him things that are poor quality such as the food truck. He hates his job though and more than anything wants to cook doing something he loves. What changes things in the end for his character though is when he slips on a spoon at work. This finishes his character arc as the family takes care of him and he finally looks inward at himself.

Wendy – Alison Steadman plays a character who would be my favorite if not for Natalie and her laugh. Wendy laughs a lot and it gets a bit grating. You can see why she does it too as she finds herself in a lot of awkward social situations and it her way of getting through them. From Aubrey hitting on her at his restaurant to when they visit his home and he’s being awkward all over the place. She is a character who knows how powerless she feels so she does what she can to change it by fighting. When Aubrey hits on her when drunk, she leaves…when her daughter tries to blame her for how miserable she is, she stands up to her too and says that she truly wants her family to be happy, which is why she accepted Andy buying the Food Truck and Natalie being a plumber. In both cases she didn’t like it at first, but their happiness was more important. Her love as a mother really comes through and you get that she takes the brunt of the hardship in most social situations.

Nicola – Nicola is the character facing most of the drama in the film. From her relationship issues with her unnamed boyfriend, to her dropping out of college and trying to find a purpose in life and joy. She is the activist only in name as she calls herself a feminist but only wears the shirts (Down with the Poll Tax) and when her mother calls her out on her lack of action in relation to her beliefs she is left rethinking it at the end. The same occurs with her boyfriend who wants to be in relationship with her truly where there relationship when we first meet them is all physical. She’s isolated, alone and in denial for most of the film but comes around when Natalie reaches out to her and they decide they’ll face finding the answers together and that everyone is weird so that shouldn’t be an issue in finding happiness.

Natalie – Natalie has the clearest head out of all of them and is most comfortable in herself. She is androgynous in appearance and enjoys hanging with the guys and working as a plumber. This is in contrast to everyone else who at least superficially is putting up appearances. From her father Andy who is doing it so he won’t feel alone, to their mother who puts up with crap from a horrible friend out of responsibility she feels. She is wholly comfortable in herself and the most stable member of the family. I really liked her character and how she spoke what was always on her mind clearly. This was a contrast to Nicola who tried to obfuscate whatever was on her mind throughout the film. Claire Skinner did an amazing job.

Critique of Capitalism – The director is a socialist and was at one point an anarchist and it comes out in the film. From Andy just being a cog in the machine and his wanting to be an individual owning his own place as only a pipe dream…to Nicola trying to consume to feel better but it only making her sick and Aubrey with his restaurant where inside it looks good but how he had none of the financial backing or contacts. He’s a man completely alone so who would show up even if the food is good? It was subtle and I enjoyed how the director did it, since any philosophy deserves to be critiqued.

Feminism – There were some feminist views I saw in the film as well that came out in a very good way. From showing why Aubrey is a bad guy due to his assuming that married Wendy and his waitresses past and present should sleep with him because he’s “Such a great guy,” to the conversation between Nicola and her boyfriend which quickly turns to him insulting her rather than him clearly calling up issues. This was done really well as neither of them were sympathetic characters though still very human.

The Writing – The writing is top notch. The dialogue is quick character have chemistry and every scene has action that develops characters and character conflict further. Mike Leigh really did a fantastic job on the screenplay.

Okay: Aubrey – Timothy Spall plays a creeper and he does a good job at it. The problem was he isn’t written as complex as he should be. Why does he live alone? What made him believe he’s a good cook? This isn’t even going into the creep factor, these are just basic character questions. He still did a good job but these issues still stand.

The Soundtrack – Not very memorable at all. Didn’t remember it after watching the film.

The Cons: Nicola’s Boyfriend – We know he’s upper middle class and acts privileged but that’s about it. I would have liked to know him and his character motivations better as well. He has less to go off than Aubrey as well.

    This was a film that was true to it’s description as a tragi-comedy or dark comedy but it also was a very good drama and had quick witty writing. It makes bigger points but does them in such a way that an audience can take what it wants to out of the film, though the critiques and views are there. This was a film that I would definitely recommend and a favorite and I was glad a friend recommended it to me.

Final Score: 9.3 / 10.  Only brought down because some of the side characters weren’t as explored as they could have been and the music was nothing special.